Defining a modern ecumenical prophetic voice

By October 8, 2008

Yesterday was an exciting one for me. As part of my campus job writing what amounts to AP copy, I got to interview Reverend John Thomas, general minister of the United Church of Christ, before he spoke to the Yale community. He titled his speech “The Future of the Prophetic Voice in the Ecumenical Church.” Rev. Thomas amended this title to read “After Seven Years,” based on a letter Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote entitled “After Ten Years.”

Bonhoeffer wrote the letter in December 1842 1942 to his co-conspirators trying to put an end to war and to overturn Hitler. Rev. Thomas said that the letter was also Bonhoeffer’s attempt to speak to himself.” He was in a place of extremity, dealing with the deaths of the Jews he was trying to save and the deaths of his former students who were being sent to die on the Western Front. And above all, Bonhoeffer was dealing with a church that “had grown silent or complicit in what was going on.” Bonhoeffer said, “We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds. . . . Are we still of any use?”

Rev. Thomas put the same question to his audience, except placed it in the context of the past seven years of the Bush administration. People in this country have been submitted to “years of intimidation, years of masterful manipulation,” and Rev. Thomas wondered, “What would it take to reinvigorate the prophetic voice in mainline Protestant churches?”

Although Rev. Thomas never specifically defined what he meant by “prophetic voice,” it seemed clear to me at least that he meant a voice of critique for unjust institutions that should be the right of the Christian Church.

He proposed five potential ways to revivify this struggling prophetic voice: 1) Cultivating a “deeper, richer sense of imagination.” For Rev. Thomas this involves deeper “biblical reflection,” “reclaiming power of the apocalyptic” language that has been co-opted by public authorities, and “reclaim[ing] in ritual more profound imagination,” which rituals include baptism and Eucharist. 2) Courage and avoiding the “seduction of respectability” in religion. 3) Creativity and whimsy in words and acts of resistance to idolatry (political). 4) Companionship with new allies, Christian and non, willing to consider the “implications of the love of God . . . in the real world.” An ecumenical spirit. 5) And “renew the public voice of theology in our time,” meaning critiques by spiritual leaders in the public arena.

Now, I am not sure if this kind of conversation about prophecy and ecumenism is even possible in the LDS church. But I think we are often content to let prophecy come to us in a very passive way. There are many forms of prophecy I think, official and unofficial (what Mormons would consider to be unofficial prophecies by artists, activists, politicians, and spiritual leaders of other religious traditions). I do think that only God’s chosen and ordained servants can make official pronouncements for the whole LDS church, but I also think our definition of prophecy could be expanded to include more the everyday lives of members and their ideas and applications of official church pronouncements. And I also think we need to consider other prophetic voices that might not necessarily be part of our own tradition.

So, are Reverend Thomas’s criteria for an ecumenical prophetic voice valid in the LDS tradition, where prophecy is designated to a specific set of individuals? How do we define prophecy and prophets (either historically or contemporarily)? Is there room for a broader definition than the one we currently have? How can Mormons join with leaders of other faith traditions to speak out against the injustice that abounds in the world? When should church leaders address political issues? Is this even a conversation we are able to have in Mormonism?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Bonhoeffer wrote the letter in December 1842

    [whispers] 1942? [/whisper]

    Comment by NItsav — October 8, 2008 @ 9:55 am

  2. How about the pro-civil rights statement read in General Conference by a member of the First Presidency in 1963 (discussed last month here at JI).

    Comment by Dave — October 8, 2008 @ 10:51 am

  3. Thomas seems to be drawing a fair amount from Walter Bruggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination (particularly in his thoughts on prophetic language) which I heartily recommend to anyone interested in this sort of thing.

    A challenge that Mormons face here, I think, is that we’ve unified the traditional divide that Weber observed between the prophet (who stands outside the status quo and denounces it for its sin) and the priest (whose job it is to maintain and stabilize the faith). It’s difficult to confront and uphold the institution at the same time.

    Comment by matt b — October 8, 2008 @ 11:48 am

  4. The specific example used by Rev. Thomas here of the last seven years is a perfect example of the challenge of seeing something like this in our church. I fear that a majority of church members don’t see the last seven years as needing criticism by a prophetic voice, and are joined in that sentiment by the larger social conservative groups, including evangelicals.

    Rev. Thomas speaks of a “deeper, richer sense of imagination” to revitalize the prophetic voice. I contrast that with a sister who spoke in the Sacrament meeting I attended two weeks ago in another ward. She talked about following the prophet so we know how to act, and talked about how great it is to go to a church where “everyone thinks the same way”. I really think that it could have been interpreted as “same values”, but in the context of her talk, they were not expressions of diverse expressions.

    It might appear that we are too comfortable with our seduction by respectability to be much of a force for political change. It could also be argued that only when we can clearly articulate the moral aspects of political action that the church could have a voice.

    However, it has been done in the recent past. The church’s express opposition to the MX missile deployment in Western Utah and Nevada hailed back to Pres. Kimball’s transcendent sermon, “The False Gods We Worship”, and earlier First Presidency Easter messages.

    Of late, we seem more cautious. I also am not sure that I see that individual acts by rank and file members really rises to the level of what Rev. Thomas is talking about here.

    Comment by kevinf — October 8, 2008 @ 5:07 pm

  5. In my second paragraph, the last few words should have been written “expressions of diverse opinions”. Thoughts running ahead of my typing, again, are to blame. Arrgh.

    Comment by kevinf — October 8, 2008 @ 5:10 pm

  6. Matt and Kevin’s comments collectively reflect my thoughts on the questions you pose. Recognizing that my own definitions or morality and injustice are highly biased and just that—my own—I still feel the Church’s apparent definition of those issues is much, much too narrow.

    And, for the reasons Matt points out, it is difficult to challenge, change, or expand those definitions.

    Comment by Christopher — October 8, 2008 @ 5:39 pm

  7. Kevinf, I really liked and appreciated your comments. I think part of the problem here is that the broader membership of the church do see themselves as largely “rank and file.” I think the prophetic potential of the membership of the church is much greater than we are willing to recognize in ourselves (perfectly captured by the comments of the sister in sacrament meeting). This sort of idea would obviously have no meaning for her, but for me that suggests that we are failing in our theological exercises. And as Chris said, it’s hard to expand definitions, but I do think it’s possible and I’m wanting to know ways of doing that. What would you all do if you could expand the definition of what prophecy is? What would you like to see talked about, shouted about in the streets of Mormonism?

    Comment by Elizabeth — October 8, 2008 @ 6:55 pm

  8. More on Bruggemann:

    ?The hope-filled language of prophecy, in cutting through the royal despair and hopelessness, is the language of amazement. It is a language that engages the community in new discernments and celebrations just when it had nearly given up and had nothing to celebrate. The language of amazement is against despair just as the language of grief is against numbness. I believe that, rightly embraced, no more subversive or prophetic idiom can be uttered than the practice of doxology, which sets us before the reality of God, of God right at the center of a scene from which we presumed he had fled.? (68)

    This, I think, is why religious art can be prophetic; it teaches us new categories in which to think, and new symbols to think with.

    Comment by matt b — October 8, 2008 @ 7:22 pm

  9. Oh, Elizabeth! Thank you for this post. I have agonized over these questions, too. I wish I could have heard John Thomas speak, but I am so glad you wrote down some of his thoughts for us.

    I admire Bonhoeffer more than almost any other theologian/activist because he was brave enough to join the language of the sacred with an unswerving critique of racism, inequality, and fascism. But I also know that he was lucky in a sense, because he got to fight the one “evil” that everyone can seem to agree on–yea, verily, Hitler. Mormons have devoted a lot of attention and praise to the “brave” people who stood up and fought Hitler. I often wonder if they have any idea what they are complimenting, or if their easy identification of Hitler with total depravity distracted them from both the radicalism of those who fought against him and the scope of the danger they were fighting. Because fascism, like any other system, gains power in a diffuse way–distributing its harms and dangerous claims across an entire population–and comes with the usual thousand-thousand reasons to not resist. Essentially, fascism creates its own spin to keep people from making the fundamental–and, I might add, religious–statement: that it denigrates human beings.

    But we do not see that. We look back through the inverted telescope of history and see dying Jews in concentration camps and a frothing Hitler leading goosesteppers down city streets. How could anybody have supported this! we cry. Easy. The exact same way we support own on host of evils, our own fundamentally anti-religious constellation of inequality, hate, and greed. We decide, basically, to cover it up in the language of love and forgiveness. We decide it is not very polite to tell it like it is, to cut to the real depravity at the heart of the matter. We make religion into the elixir of temporary relief. We make it small and unthreatening to the structures of injustice. And that is when religion fails: when it decides to address consequences instead of roots, symptoms instead of structures.

    We are complicit because we no longer believe in such a thing as structural evil. When Jeremiah Wright delivered his God Damn America speech, people went ballistic. They could not comprehend that there was such a thing as collective evil–or that it could be done in America’s name. That, or they could not believe that it could be religion’s job to thunder against it.

    When I listened to Wright’s speech, I felt more relieved than I have in my entire life. Finally, a preacher willing to skip all the justifications and say it like it was–to admit that there was collective evil. Finally, someone who saw it as his religous duty to address the root of our problems rather than continue to feed and clothe an endless stream of the hungry and naked who were hungry and naked for very real reasons.

    I believe it is religion’s job to state the real. The real is that we are children of God. We do not earn that, we are that. And so I believe it is religion’s job not to hope that the State will grant to people some form of equality, but to say with the mouth of God: we are already equal. We do not earn it. The state does not give it to us. We are it. It is the undeniable real.

    The other undeniable real is suffering. It is religion’s job to ease pain in whatever form. It is not religion’s job to play politics with pain. If religion denies the reality of suffering in the name of the growth, efficiency, or respectability, is has crucified itself on the wrong cross.

    I hear people frequently say that religion can’t engage with the world because it doesn’t get involved in politics. They are right. Religion does not get involved in politics; religion gets involved in every single thing that would ease the suffering of any one individual. If that includes what others have deemed as political, so be it. It is also religion’s job to, as you say, avoid the language of the political to speak in the language of the unconstricted throat–to not trade democracy for the language of technocracy, but to keep democracy real by saying what is fundamentally true: that all people are equal in the number of souls they have.

    Today at my church my wonderful bishop invited a Catholic woman to address the Relief Society and Priesthood. She spoke about poverty and our obligation to help the poor among us.

    Because of that, my family has now decided to help a Burmese refugee family, and I know many others in my ward will do the same. I am so grateful for that.

    I am, however, also sad. Nowhere in the conversation did we talk about a political or economic system that requires the subjugation of a cheap labor pool, or the reason these people have to work three jobs, or even the reason they are refugees. We will feed and clothe them when they come, because we see that as our job. But we do not see it as our job to stop them from having to come at all–to end wars, to question nationalism, to stop the root causes of racism, to form a truly equitable economic system. And until we do that, we are not of enough use. We have not been truly prophetic. We have not taken the radical step of Bonhoeffer: to tie suffering to the system that perpetuates it, and then to resist that system in the name of and with the words of God.

    Comment by Ashley Sanders — October 12, 2008 @ 10:55 pm

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